Life and Times

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Donald Robert Perry Marquis (1878-1937) was a celebrated New York newspaper columnist and humorist in the early decades of the last century. Today he is remembered mostly for his stories of Archy and Mehitabel, a lowercase cockroach and a toujours gai alley cat, but in his lifetime Marquis was known equally well for the Old Soak — a hip-flask philosopher who struggled mightily during the dry days of Prohibition — and a host of other characters and farcical tales. Altogether he wrote five Broadway plays, dozens of books, and hundreds of poems and short stories.

Marquis was born July 29, 1878, in rural Walnut, Illinois, and began his newspaper career setting type and writing for small-town weeklies. After brief stints as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, he moved to Atlanta in 1902 and worked as an editorial writer at the Atlanta News and the Atlanta Journal before taking a job with Joel Chandler Harris in 1907 as associate editor of the new Uncle Remus’s Magazine. The magazine gave him nationwide exposure and also introduced him to his first wife, Reina Melcher, a freelance writer and budding novelist.

In 1909, a year after Harris’ death, Marquis moved to New York City to seek his fortune. He worked at several New York newspapers before moving to The Evening Sun in 1912, where he parlayed a job editing a feature page into a signed daily column, The Sun Dial, on the editorial page. Marquis’ column distinguished itself for its breezy mix of quips, commentary and humorous verse — and for the farcical characters who chronicled the events and fashions of their time with thinly veiled satire. In addition to the Old Soak and Archy and Mehitabel, the cast included Hermione, a Greenwich Village dilletante; Fothergill Finch, an affected poet; Capt. Peter Fitzurse, an unreconstructed raconteur; and Aunt Prudence Hecklebury, an insufferable prude.

Besides giving him a humorus outlet for blunt social criticism, Archy and Mehitabel and the other characters solved a recurring problem for Marquis: Many of their tales were written in advance, and they easily filled his column when he was running short of copy. It was a daunting task to fill a 23-inch column six days a week, but Marquis did it cleverly, and gracefully. Archy’s wide-ranging commentary was especially useful, and its short, broken lines of type were explained away by the obvious (!) challenges of a cockroach trying to operate a typewriter.

Don Marquis was one of the most quoted writers in Manhattan in the 1920s, when New York’s literary scene was reaching its zenith. His newspaper contemporaries were Christopher Morley, Heywood Broun and Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.), but only Adams challenged Marquis for the heart and soul of New Yorkers of that era. The great humor writers who came soon afterward — Robert Benchly, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber — considered Marquis a New York icon.

In 1922 he parlayed the Old Soak into one of the top Broadway plays of that season (and eventually a silent movie, a “talkie” and a radio drama). That same year Marquis left The Sun for the New York Tribune, where his new column, The Lantern, continued to draw wide praise and readership. (A note on changing names: The Evening Sun shortened its name to The Sun in 1920, and the New York Tribune became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924. Marquis’ column at the Tribune was initially named The Tower — a holdover from the days when F.P.A. wrote his Conning Tower column there — but within a few months it was changed to The Lantern.)

By all accounts Marquis enjoyed his time at the Herald Tribune, but by 1925 he was exhausted. The daily demands of the column took a toll, and he never recovered from a string of tragedies: His only son died in 1921, at age 5, and his wife Reina died unexpectedly in 1923. (He remarried in 1926, to the actress Marjorie Potts Vonnegut, but the tragedies continued: His only daughter died in 1931, at age 13, and his second wife died in 1936.) Marquis quit the Herald Tribune and never returned to newspapers. He wrote a weekly column for Collier’s magazine for a year and sold short stories and opinion pieces to Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post and other leading magazines of the day. (He was a finalist three times for the O. Henry Memorial Prize for short fiction, was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and awarded a medal by the Mark Twain Society.)

While his collected columns and stories were regularly released in books — 27 principal works in as many years — Marquis pursued a new career as a playwright. To his chagrin, however, only his first effort, “The Old Soak,” proved successful on the stage. In an ironic twist, Marquis made a fortune on the bibulous Old Soak — more than $100,000, by some estimates — and then lost it all a few years later when he financed his own drama portraying the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Marquis was praised for his sensitive treatment, but critics panned the play’s direction by his wife, Marjorie Marquis — it premiered while the author was hospitalized with a serious illness.

Like dozens of other writers of his time, Marquis also tried his hand at screenwriting. He wrote dialog for the hit 1932 movie “Skippy” and a few others, but he hated the work. When he left Hollywood in 1931, he wrote a brutal poem castigating the film industry for its roughshod treatment of writers. On a personal level, he was bitterly disappointed with silent movies based on two of his most successful books, “The Old Soak” and “The Cruise of the Jasper B.”

Back in New York, Marquis found peace in his surviving family — Marjorie Marquis and her two children from a previous marriage — and in the company of friends such as Christopher Morley. Marquis, belonging to an earlier generation of New York wits, wasn’t a regular at the famous Algonquin Round Table, but he was welcome in their company and frequently joined the poker games held upstairs at the Algonquin Hotel by the self-proclaimed Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club.

Marquis spent much of his time at The Players, a private club on Gramercy Park, made famous for its membership of actors, artists and writers, and it was there that Marquis delivered one of his most memorable quips. Marquis was a regular at the Players bar except when he was ailing and ordered on the wagon by his doctor. After one such period of exile, friends at the Players watched gleefully as he strode to the bar and declared: “I’ve conquered that goddamned willpower of mine. Give me a double scotch!”

Marquis published several compilation volumes in his final years, including the 1935 volume “archy does his part,” his third and final collection of Archy and Mehitabel columns. He also worked on “Sons of the Puritans,” a mostly autobiographical novel, but died before finishing it — a task left to his great friend Christopher “Kit” Morley.

His final years weren’t kind. Increasingly in poor health and unable to work, Marquis suffered a series of strokes in 1935 and 1936 that made it difficult for him to walk or speak. And then, on Oct. 25, 1936, Marjorie Marquis, who worked so hard to care for her ailing husband, died unexpectedly in her sleep. Marquis could not bear this final assault; his health spiraled downward, and the last year of his life was pitiable. He died Dec. 29, 1937.

“Don Marquis was, in his own circle, the best loved man of his time,” Morley wrote in a sad tribute after Marquis’ death. Another contemporary, E.B. White, called Marquis “a very funny man, his product rich and satisfying, full of sad beauty, bawdy adventure, political wisdom, and wild surmise; full of pain and jollity, full of exact and inspired writing.”

Columnist, playwright, humorist, short story writer and screenwriter, Marquis also wrote several volumes of serious poetry and three full-length novels — a remarkable range of talents. While many of his stories are forgettable today, there are others — most notably the observations of a cockroach and an alley cat — that remain fresh and funny and unique in American literature. It’s a curious fact that none of Marquis’ books ever appeared on the best-seller lists, yet so many of the better-selling writers of his time are now virtually unknown. “archy and mehitabel,” meanwhile, has never gone out of print since it first appeared, 88 years ago.

— John Batteiger

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Three Writers On Don Marquis

DON MARQUIS
In 1916 Christopher Morley asked Don Marquis to write an autobiographical account of his life. Marquis complied with a marvelous spoof that Morley included in two essays later published in books — “Don Marquis” (“Essays by Christopher Morley,” 1928) and “A Successor to Mark Twain” (“Letters of Askance,” 1939).

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY
Morley’s obituary tribute to Marquis is reprinted here from the January 1938 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature. Its title, “O Rare Don Marquis,” was later adopted for Edward Anthony’s biography of Marquis.

E.B. WHITE
A funny, moving profile of Don Marquis by one of the great essayists of the 20th century. E.B. White wrote this as an introduction to a reissued edition of “The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel,” published in 1950.

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A Don Marquis Checklist

Here is a complete checklist of books by Don Marquis — his principal works plus privately printed editions, omnibus collections and posthumous compilations. In all, 46 titles in 100 years, from 1911 to 2011.

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Chronology

Milestones in a busy life, from rural Illinois, to New York City, with forays in Paris, London and Hollywood.

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Photo Gallery 

Coming soon: A gallery of photos, many of them rarely seen, showing Don, his family and friends, former homes and newspaper offices, and miscellany. 

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Further Reading 

Looking for more? Check out this list of recommended biographies, resources and inspired commentary.

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A note about the images on this page: The photo near the top of the page, at left, shows Don at about the time he created Archy the cockroach in 1916. The photo is in the Library of Congress’ collection with no date, but a telling clue is the doorknob at the left of the photo: It is decorated with the initials ATS (barely visible at the current resolution but plainly evident at full size), indicating that it was taken when Don’s newspaper, the Evening Sun, moved its offices one block, from 170 Nassau St. on New York’s Newspaper Row to 150 Nassau St., the former home of the American Tract Society, a religious publisher. The Sun was headquartered there from 1914 to 1919, before it moved to its final home at the northeast corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, where the four-sided clock still carries the Sun’s motto “It shines for all.”)

The New York Tribune advertisement at lower right, showing an urbane Don with a lit cigarette was taken from a program for “The Old Soak,” his smash Broadway comedy in 1922-23. The painting was by Don’s friend and noted portrait painter Joseph Cummings Chase. The original is owned by The Players, a private club on New York’s Gramercy Park that counted Marquis and Chase among its celebrated members.

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